William S. Burroughs: Interview

Editor’s Note: Circa 1995, one of the editors of the original Sensitive Skin, Mr. E. Oso, handed me the following manuscript, an interview with William S. Burroughs, in turn given to him by an assistant to Allen Ginsberg, Ginsberg having blessed it for inclusion in the magazine. Unfortunately, at that time, to paraphrase W. B. Yeats, shit was all fucked-up and bullshit, so we never got around to publishing the piece. So it sat in a drawer. When Sensitive Skin came back on line in 2010, I remembered the Burroughs interview—but I couldn’t find it. I looked for it everywhere, but after a cross-country move, it—along with all of the OG files from issues past and projected—had gone missing. As the French say, “Emmenez-moi votre mère, pour que je puisse vous refaire!”

Then, six months ago, in the fall of 2011, while poring over ancient CD-Rs, searching for an old scan, I stumbled across all the missing files, including the Burroughs piece! Huzzah!

Shortly thereafter, the painter David West approached me about publishing his book, Music: Drawing Down the Muse. He told me to go see the book’s designer, Ruby Ray, in San Francisco, to check out the galleys. So I met Ruby and, looking around her apartment, quickly sussed out that she was a photographer. As a matter of fact, she’s the photographer, the one who took those iconic Burroughs shots for RE/Search magazine back in the ’80s. Turns out she had some unpublished photographs from that session, which she generously gave me permission to use. When I told David about it, he sent me the original illustrations he’d created back in ’95 to accompany the article, so they’re included as well. Sometimes the universe tells you what to do. . . .

I recently learned this interview had been published, in a collection called Burroughs Live: The Collected Interview of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, from Semiotext(e). The book was published in 2000, I don’t think it’s widely known (6 reviews on Amazon), and hey, we had it first. So here it is. . . . 

—B. Kold

The preface is from Allen Ginsberg’s Journals. Steven Taylor transcribed the many hours of taped conversation which took place in Lawrence, Kansas, from March 17–22, 1992. Steven Taylor and Allen Ginsberg made the initial edits, from which a very small selection follows.

[I went out] last night with bill burroughs and friends to a stone house in which Bill used to live on a hilltop outside Lawrence, Kansas. William Lyon [a professor of anthropology who apprenticed 14 years with Wallace Black Elk, a Sioux medicine man] now rents the same house and has dug beside it a sweat lodge to work with a Navajo Indian shaman named Melvin Betsellie.

We sat with towels in the black dark smoky plastic igloo bower, laced with twig skeleton covered with black plastic, a fire pit in center. Bill sat by the entrance as the big-bellied shaman went ’round the tent thanking each one there, Bill first, for inviting him to share the grandfathers’ medicine and again giving him the opportunity to drive the bad spirit out of Bill’s life and body. Then he prayed to the grandfathers, water, earth, rocks and green coal. So Melvin prayed to the creator, the grandfathers, the elements, to help Bill on his way, make his way easy when it’s time for him to go back to the creator, make him strong to live a long long time, and to us all to think of Bill and send him our healing thoughts, get rid of the bad element that was in the coal, send the bad spirit back to the one who’d put it in Bill, maybe an animal, maybe someone angry. The spirit was caught, jiggled in the shrill flute & blown into the fire. Put the spirit into the rocky fire pit still glowing, steaming with cedar-fragrant smoke in our eyes.

The Shaman prayed to help Bill on his way, make his way easy when it’s time for him to go back to the creator, and to get rid of the bad element that was in the coal, send the bad spirit back to the one who’d put it in Bill, maybe an animal, maybe someone angry.

Last round of pipe and tobacco were passed ’round, sweet mild tobacco. We puffed three or four times each from the long-stemmed stone-headed heavy pipe. Thank ancestors, thank water, stone, sky, wood, varied elements, spirits, crawling spirits, insect spirits, all asked to help us and help this old man on his way have a strong heart and clear head and a long happy life, peaceful life from now on, the bad spirit gone back to where it came from, who it came from.

I was naked in the darkness as was Bill, except for his shorts. He kept saying: “Yes . . . yes . . . of course, thank you, I’m grateful,” with good, subdued, conscious manners, quietly responsive ’till, at the end with the heat and suffocating smoke and occasional heart pity, “Please, please, open the door, some air.” And a couple of times: “Please, let me out, I need to go out,” till he lay down with his head close to cooler floor where there was more clear air. His chest wrinkled, the scar of coronary bypass skin colored brown, tan like on his arms and breast which sat wrinkled on his frame. Thin body, the back of him was stooped, soft-muscled but vigorous at 78 years. He said, “I always thought poets were lazy prose writers, writing paragraphs and sentences and breaking it up into lines.’”

Climax of long ceremony, on his knees, Mel chanted several long long prayers. Then he repeated anaphoric words in his native Navajo tongue . . . and waved the smoke at all of us separately and prayed repeatedly to the bear spirit, the four-legged people, the two-legged people, the crawling people, the insects, the families, the brothers and sisters here and everywhere, the relatives and their own brothers and sisters or relatives. Family, all one family, no matter what race we come from. All relatives together in a room.

Finally, ceremony over, we all ate, big servings of pot-roast meat, baked cheese potato slices, salad, coffee, a homemade sweet icing cake.

Now next morning, Bill’s up talking to his cats, feeding them. I’ll get up and see him on his way to Kansas City 7:30 am, later read him this account.

* * *

Breakfast table talk, AG and WSB at table.

AG: How did you feel emotionally or psychologically during the exorcism ceremony? That was quite moving, I thought, all those people really wishing you well.

burroughs_commander

Burroughs with Colt Commander, 1981, photograph by Ruby Ray

WSB: Oh, that’s what I felt too. They were really great and I just felt, you know, sort of . . . laying myself open, just completely, undirected thought, undirected thought. I did nothing, no sort of intellectualizing.

AG: What occurred to me is that we were focusing on your well-being, but also, I was realizing at the time. . . . I don’t know if you realize how many people really love your work and feel a great deal of affection, but it must be hundreds of thousands or millions of people. 

WSB: Yes. Well, yeah I feel it. I feel it very deeply. I like the shaman very much, the way he was crying. 

AG: Later, in conversation with the shaman, you were agreeing that, in order to get a spirit, you have to see it.

WSB: Oh yes. If you see it, you gain control of it. It’s just a matter of, well, if you see it outside, it’s no longer inside.

AG: In other words, unless error were allowed enough play so that it manifested itself visibly—

WSB: You would never see it. In exorcism, a verbal argument can never do anything. You can’t ever beat the entity in a verbal argument because that’s what he wants. It’s only through a confront, a non-verbal confront, that anything happens. It has to be non-verbal. Otherwise, they’d argue and argue going around and around and around for a hundred thousand years. But the arguing has nothing whatever to do with what they’re really doing.

AG: So now how would you have confronted the Satan in the Ayatollah and his followers, about this price on Salman Rushdie’s head and the killing of his Japanese translator?

WSB: That is not a question. You think in political terms or justifications, never get anywhere.

AG: Well, the method of confrontation is now that many of the publishers got together to put out The Satanic Verses in paperback. That’s not an argument, that’s a deed.

WSB: Yes, it might be something. But never, never a verbal argument, it will never never go anywhere except in circles. Because you’re not talking about the issue at all, you’re talking about words.

AG: Uh-huh. I like the idea of the idea as a virus. In marketing research, that’s exactly what they do. Like for political purposes, make a little three-word virus slogan.

WSB: Why, sure. Now I know you’ve heard about the computer viruses.

AG: Yeah, now what do they do, spread through telephone modems?

WSB: It can get in the program. And then it’s hard to get rid of. They have to kind of call in the priest to exorcize the computer.

AG: What do you think the shaman, Melvin, was seeing in you? What do you think he was getting?

WSB: He described it as a spirit with a white skull face, but no eyes, and sort of . . . wings, like that.

AG: A-ha! And did you get any glimpse of such a thing?

WSB: Well I have many times.

AG: Yeah, and you’ve painted it in a way.

WSB: Yes, I brought it out in some paintings and he would say, “Well, there it is, there it is, and there it is,” in the painting. Come in here and I’ll show you some of the paintings that I showed him.

* * *

They move into the painting studio.

AG: Here are some journalistic questions: Why did it take so long for your books to be published?

WSB: Well, there were lots of reasons.

AG: In those days, there was very direct censorship.

WSB: See, I had published Naked Lunch in 1959, it was published in Paris. Then, when it came to the question of publishing Queer (mss. 1952), I didn’t have the manuscript. Alan Ansen the poet had the manuscript in Venice. And I wasn’t in a hurry to publish it because I felt it was amateuristic, you know. I’d gone much further by then.

AG: You already had material for Soft Machine, and—

WSB: The Ticket that Exploded. You see, Naked Lunch was from about a thousand pages of material. A lot of it overflowed, then, into the cut-up trilogy including Nova Express.

AG: And then a big huge manuscript, Interzone, that Kerouac had helped type, which was the first draft of Naked Lunch. But there was another reason, as I remember, which was that Howl was not published till 1957. In the Howl case in San Francisco, the judge said that literary merit was a critical consideration. Up to that point, Queer would have been too . . . colorful to pass censorship. And then since ’58, in a sequence of cases beginning with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller and culminating in ’62 with the Naked Lunch victory, the courts affirmed over and over again that literary merit was a defense against censorship for obscenity.

WSB: Yep.

AG: And that had never been established. Like in Britain, Vizetelly was persecuted in the 19th century for publishing Emile Zola, and was ruined because the statement of literary merit was not allowed in court. And then in the ’20s in England, Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian The Well of Loneliness was condemned, though the entire Bloomsbury circle went to court, including Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf and E.M. Forster. They weren’t allowed to speak for the literary merit of the book—which they didn’t think had that much literary merit—but they went to bat for it because, though it was controversial, it was legitimate.

WSB: Yes, and the Sitwells, too.

AG: Yes, but British court at that time said that literary merit would not be admissible as any sort of evidence. The question in British law was whether or not the book was obscene, not whether it had merit.

WSB: Yes.

AG: In the American James Joyce decision of the ’20s, the judge said that, if the definition of pornography or obscenity is that it tends to excite or arouse lust, then Ulysses is more of an emetic, so does not arouse lust.

WSB: I think it was Judge Learned Hand. Well, he was a cultured, intelligent man.

AG: So the sequence of trials that Grove Press funded in the ’50s, culminating with yours, actually broke the back of literary censorship, because at that point, it was not a question of whether or not it aroused erotic interest, or gave you a hard-on, or got you sexually aroused. It was a question of whether this arousal was on the basis of something that had artistic or literary merit. OK. [Reading]: “How come Naked Lunch was started in Tangier?” Actually, Naked Lunch was started before. Originally, Interzone and the Market had their origins in notes you wrote when we were editing The Yage Letters together in New York in late 1953. I always thought the Interzone Meet Café was the seed of Naked Lunch.

WSB: Absolutely. Yes.

AG: I thought Star Wars stole that seed when they had that Meet Café, the interplanetary bar.

WSB: Oh, yes, well I wouldn’t say that they stole it.

AG: Well, the vision certainly was keyed-off or “appropriated.” [Reading]: In ’57, Orlovsky, Kerouac and Ginsberg visited Burroughs in Tangier. Did Burroughs receive any influences from that event to write Naked Lunch?”

WSB: No.

AG: No, what you received . . . we came bringing manuscripts and Kerouac bringing his typing and editing skills. Did he type Interzone, or what?

WSB: He typed quite a lot of it. Fast typer.

AG: Yeah, a hundred twenty words a minute.

AG: [Reading]: Please tell us about Brion Gysin [painter and Burroughs collaborator]. How was the cutup technique created? What was Mr. Burroughs intention in creating this technique? How did they collab— 

WSB: I did not create it. It was created by Brion Gysin. It’s really a painter’s technique, an extension of the collage technique, which was pretty old hat in painting at that time. It is closer really to the process of human perception. You see, should I stand in front of a landscape and paint it, I’m completely ignoring the factor of time. While I am painting it, it’s changing, clouds are changing, all sorts of things. So there’s the myth there of someone creating in a timeless vacuum. Now, so I say, take a walk around the block, come back, and put what you have seen on canvas. What have you seen? You have seen fragments. You’ve seen a man cut in half by a car, you’ve seen reflections in the shop windows. 

AG: Uh-huh, and you’ve seen your own thoughts, if you daydreamed also.

WSB: Yes, of course, and how they intersect with reality. And I found that if you notice what you were thinking when you saw something, you’ll see that what you’re thinking is reflected in what you see. I was thinking about New Mexico, and I rounded the corner in New York, and there was a New Mexico license plate: “New Mexico, land of enchantment.”

AG: Now, Gysin’s suggestion was that “writing was fifty years behind painting,” from the point of view of the Dadaist and early collage artists.

Life is a cutup. And to pretend that you write or paint in a timeless vacuum is just simply . . . not . . . true, not in accord with the facts of human perception.

WSB: Yes. Also, this is closer to the facts of perception. Every time you look out the window or walk down the street, your consciousness is cut by random, seemingly random . . . Life is a cutup. And to pretend that you write or paint in a timeless vacuum is just simply . . . not . . . true, not in accord with the facts of human perception.

AG: Portions of Naked Lunch were sent to Maurice Girodias [original Paris publisher of Naked Lunch at Olympia Press] in the order of their typing.

WSB: That’s right.

AG: And so the arrangement of those chapters was in a sense random or cutup.

WSB: The idea was that we would decide the order when we looked at the proofs. I remember Brion saying “Well, why change it? It’s perfect the way it is, the way it came from the printer.” Made one major change, that is, the first chapter that came from the printers, which would be the beginning, we moved to the end. The first chapter became the last chapter. There’s no actual cutups in Naked Lunch.

AG: What did you think, in the movie, of the use of that autobiographical section?

WSB: I thought it was quite . . . quite all right.

AG: To shoot the actress twice, I thought, was treading on territory . . . though by doing it twice, it sort of made it more imaginative and less close to home.

WSB: Well, that’s what I meant. The use of all the biographical material became part of a bizarre surrealist structure. That was the reason that Cronenberg didn’t want me to take any part in the film as an actor. That would destroy the whole illusory structure—to put somebody in there that the audience would know, know just who it was—it would be a bad note.

AG: So the film is basically an hallucination on the basis of some autobiographical material already fictionally hallucinated in the book.

WSB: Yes.

AG: I like the idea of generalizing the narcotic thing by making it black meat addiction.

WSB: Yes, so you can’t say it’s a film about drugs, all the drugs are made up. Nor can you say it’s a film about sex because, well, there are all sorts of sexual references, as there are in these other films. It was not explicit human sex. It’s kept totally inhuman, people turning into centipedes. It is not— 

AG: So it’s not specifically homoerotic, either.

WSB: No, no.

AG: The big giant insect, that was the most realized thing. The typewriters were amazing, cause that combined the Talking Asshole and the typewriters.

WSB: Yes, but I never would have thought of that. That is, the importance, the symbolic importance, of the actual instrument with which you write, the typewriter. Never occurred to me.

AG: Well, it’s already implicit. It’s an extension of your idea that the writer writes the future or writes reality or writes what is going to happen. And in that sense, the typewriter “tells the fortune” so to speak. The typewriter imagination tells the writer what to write.

WSB: Exactly. Yes.

AG: So the typewriter is both the machine and the imagination itself. But it also combines it with what looks to be an anus, which talks out of turn, which is in the classic Talking Asshole routine, and it also combines it with an anus addicted to bug powder pleasures [laughs]. So he actually made a composite image. That was an invention worthy of your prose, I thought. But I had one strong objection to the acting, which is that the figure of Martin, which is based presumably on me, is a wimp, and I don’t mind that, because I did feel somewhat wimpy, [laughs], still do, but reading the Market section at the beginning, when [the Kerouac character] is screwing your supposed wife . . . and I’m sitting there making believe I’m ignoring it and reading or encouraging it by reading the Market section, or this character Martin is doing it. And it’s read in such a flat, toneless, uninteresting voice! It doesn’t bring out the vigor and humor and color of the soliloquy.

WSB: Yes, but always remember, there’s no point trying to be faithful to the book because film and writing are just two completely different things. Any film stands on its own, apart from whether it’s based on a novel.

AG: Does this film stand on its own as logically as the book? In other words, the book has that logical frame. The film, I couldn’t tell. It was sort of like . . . Yeats has the phrase Hodos Chameliontos, chameleon-like, in that you don’t know where the beginning or the middle or the end is, so it’s an unrelieved hallucination, because you don’t know where you’re coming in and you don’t know where you’re going out. It ends, you’re going into the hallucination, or maybe coming out of it, I don’t know. Annexia might be waking up from having committed killing or waking from a dream of having committed killing or maybe a continuation of the hallucination. It’s kind of an indecisive moral, or an indecisive resolution of the condition of hallucination. In the book, you touch on the reality. Here reality is touched on when Martin . . . the two writers come in occasionally.

WSB: Now remember that there isn’t any Kerouac in the book.

AG: Yeah. So that’s just added in from biography. And what other elements? So they took from Queer. And they took from Exterminator. The opening chapter of Exterminator with the addiction to bug powder.

WSB: Bug powder, yes. There’s a book called Mummy and the people actually seem to have become addicted to mummy dust. And mummy dust was somehow made from people who’ve died of the most loathsome diseases. It’s too bad that Cronenberg didn’t see this book, see I only saw it after the film was made. It might have been of interest to him.

AG: Who do you read now, among American writers? You read Mailer’s Ancient Evenings.

WSB: I read Mailer’s Ancient Evenings with great interest because I was interested in . . . the seven souls structure, which was very helpful to me in Western Lands. And also in Place of Dead Roads. So that’s Mailer. But I read a lot of books for information, like doctor books, spy books. . . . 

AG: Like this book actually. Exorcism.

WSB: Exorcism is a subject that interests me, and books on shamanism, I’ve read through.

AG: You read a lot of spy novels. Did you see Mailer’s new huge spy novel, Harlot’s Ghost?

WSB: I have seen it yes.

AG: Have you read it at all?

WSB: Not all.

AG: Looked a little like Dos Passos. You know, that composite of realistic news and news headline and journalism and fiction. But apparently, he’s come to funny ambivalent feeling about the C.I.A., both admiration and loathing or something. Sort of like life itself, complicated and . . . a big complicated organism that you shouldn’t kill, necessarily. 

WSB: [laughs].

AG: Did you read The Naked and the Dead?

WSB: Yes.

AG: It’s a good read, a solid novel. I liked From Here to Eternity better. It got more of the army . . . it’s about what it means to be a peacetime soldier, a 20-year man. Whereas Mailer’s was about a wartime army with all sorts of miscellaneous people who were not professional army men at all. Did you read The Catcher in the Rye?

Burroughs in Garden with Shotgun, 1981, photograph by Ruby Ray

Burroughs in Garden with Shotgun, 1981, photograph by Ruby Ray

WSB: Caulfield, he was a wretched specimen. Talk about a wimp. He really turned my stomach.

AG: And The Old Man and the Sea? I thought that was very good when I read it.

WSB: It’s good from a mythological point of view. All this talk about the noble fish and all that crap. 

AG: Well the guy strives so hard and he gets his fish home but it’s been eaten to a skeleton by then. So you get what you want, but . . . now I have enough money to travel wherever I want, but I haven’t got the health.

WSB: Well, exactly.

AG: I’ve got enough money to live where I want, but I don’t want to move. It’s too hard. [laughs]

WSB: Exactly exactly exactly. I’ve gotten enough money, so I could travel if I wanted to, but I can’t.

AG: Why can’t you?

WSB: Well what am I going to do?

AG: Go out and have sexual adventures in Burma.

WSB: Yes, I . . . lost interest in that, and there’s the question of . . . various questions. My health and so on.

AG: Hobbling into the bathroom to take another pill? What pill is that? Actually I like the image of The Old Man and the Sea, of striving and succeeding but finding that the success was ghost success. In other words, in the long run, after a certain age, the motives for success, pride or oppressing people or getting power—

WSB: They’re gone.

AG: The desire to have power dissolves. The desire to dominate people for love dissolves. On the other hand, it’s a relief to realize you can let go.

WSB: That’s true, too.

[After watching Naked Lunch together at the cinema in Lawrence.]

AG: Well, congratulations, Bill. In some ways the movie was quite good, a far-out piece of imaginative fantasy.

WSB: That’s it, yes.

AG: To get on screen with the Talking Asshole, quite a feat. And it’s certainly going to be a cult film that people will be seeing. The combination of drugs, homosexuality, some good prose recited on screen. . . . In the sweat lodge ceremony we went through, did you get any glimpse of the Ugly Spirit, what that was historically or biographically?

WSB: Well, I know what it is.

AG: The nurse, your governess, or . . . ?

The first person who really showed me the ugly spirit was Brion Gysin. “The ugly spirit shot Joan because. . . .” and I never found out why. This Brion wrote out on a piece of paper in a sort of trance state.

WSB: No, no, she was just a very minor . . . the first person who really showed me the ugly spirit was Brion Gysin. “The ugly spirit shot Joan because . . .” and I never found out why. This Brion wrote out on a piece of paper in a sort of trance state.

AG: So the phrase “ugly spirit” was from him, but did you ever locate the specific quality or character or historical personage or spirit?

WSB: Well, no. It’s very much related to the American tycoon. To William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil. Ugly evil. The ugly American. The ugly American at his ugly worst. That’s exactly what it is.

AG: But then that’s the character that has possessed you?

WSB: Yes. That’s right.

AG: So would that be a family thing from Burroughs?

WSB: No, not necessarily.

AG: That would apply to moving your hand with Joan? That’s how Brion was locating it, that way. 

WSB: No, he said “ugly spirit shot Joan because.” To be cause, shot Joan to be cause. . . . 

AG: Well, in the preface to Queer, you spoke of it as the ugly spirit that entered you and depressed you beforehand and after.

WSB: Yes, certainly.

AG: And his phrase was, “for ugly spirit shot Joan because,” and that it’s a case of your possession. So I was wondering, with the shaman, did you get any glimpse of the action or operation or persona of the ugly spirit in you when he was exorcizing it?

WSB: Well, he said it was the toughest case he’d ever handled. And for a moment he thought he was going to just lose.

AG: Then I remember yesterday you were saying, “He had to face the whole of American capitalism, Rockefeller, the C.I.A.”

WSB: Yes, yes.

AG: J.P. Morgan, ITT. . . . 

WSB: All of those. Particularly Hearst.

AG: Hearst the word man, the original image manipulator.

WSB: Yes, precisely. They say something is true, it is. “We don’t report the news, we make it!”

AG: Yes.

WSB: Well, that’s what the shaman said. He didn’t know what he was up against. He didn’t expect the strength and weight and evil intensity of this spirit, this “entity,” as he called it. The same way the priest in an exorcism has to take on the spirit.

AG: I remember, during your hypnoanalysis experience with Dr. Louis Wolberg in 1947, you uncovered various levels of personae in yourself. But didn’t he get to the ugly spirit?

WSB: No, he couldn’t have handled it.

AG: What if there never was such an invasion? Do you still think there was some specific event?

WSB: Of course there was.

AG: That was not reachable.

WSB: Not with such means.

AG: And would the memory of the event be necessary for exorcism?

WSB: No, not necessarily.

AG: Or memory of the feeling. In other words, did you get anything from the shaman’s sweat-lodge ceremony?

WSB: That was much better than anything psychoanalysts have come up with. Something definite there was being touched upon. He did more than. . . . 

William S. Burroughs up with your hands photograph by Ruby Ray

Up with Your Hands, You Collaborators, 1981, photograph by Ruby Ray

AG: So what could it possibly be? You got any idea if it’s a definite event?

WSB: It’s the means, the moment at which the spirit gained access.

AG: So the “ultimate secret” would be that moment when the spirit gained access.

WSB: Well, presumably, if you see it at the moment it gained access, then it’ll be dropped. 

AG: Dissolves.

WSB: This, you see, is the same notion—Catholic exorcism, psychotherapy, shamanistic practices—getting to the moment when whatever it was gained access. And also to the name of the spirit. Just to know that it’s the Ugly Spirit. That’s a great step. Because the spirit doesn’t want its name to be known.

Ag: So Brion Gysin was the one that actually named it.

WSB: Yes, yes.

AG: What year was that?

WSB: Well, it’d be 1959.

AG: In Paris. How did that question arise, then?

WSB: Well, he saw it.

AG: So Brion was a kind of shaman.

WSB: He was a shaman. A very potent shaman.


drawings of Joan and William S. Burroughs by David West
drawing of Joan Burroughs by David West

drawing of William S. Burroughs by David West

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